You can’t predict baseball, but you can at least lay out the parameters. So let’s take a look at what the Dodgers and Braves have in store for us in the National League Division Series.
Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) vs. Atlanta Braves (96-66)
Game 1 Today in Atlanta: Clayton Kershaw vs. Kris Medlen
Game 2 Friday in Atlanta: Zack Greinke vs. Mike Minor
Game 3 Sunday in Los Angeles: Julio Teheran vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu
Game 4 (if necessary) Monday in Los Angeles: Freddy Garcia vs. Ricky Nolasco
Game 5 (if necessary) Wednesday in Atlanta
The Dodgers had huge preseason expectations which looked to be dashed after stumbling out of the gate to a 31-42 record which had them 9.5 games back in the NL West as late as June 22. Don Mattingly was assumed to be on the hot seat and the season seemed lost. Then all they did was call up rookie Yasiel Puig and go on a tear and put the division in their rear-view mirror. Most of the headlines about the Dodgers in the second half were about Yasiel Puig’s exploits and the injuries to offensive stars like Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez. The real story of this team, however, is its stellar starting pitching, led by presumptive Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and a man who would be the ace on just about every other team, Zack Greinke. Indeed, the Dodgers led the NL in ERA.
Atlanta, on the other hand, was in first place every single day of the season except for one day in early April and were never challenged for the NL East crown. Its a team which, for much of the season, featured a feast-or-famine approach at the plate, with lots of homers and lots of strikeouts to go with them. Indeed, Atlanta led the NL in both categories. As the second half progressed, however, a bit more dynamism entered the offense, with outfielder Jason Heyward moving to the leadoff position and B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla increasingly riding the pine. And while the Dodgers have the best pitching around, don’t sleep on the Braves’ staff. They were second in the NL in ERA and their bullpen was the best in the National League.
- The Dodgers and the Braves both stumbled in September, with L.A. posting a record of 12-15 and Atlanta going 13-14. September records can be misleading, however, especially when the teams involved had more or less sewn up their playoff positions before Labor Day. As such, “momentum” — a dubious idea when it comes to the playoffs anyway — is not exactly on the table here.
- While momentum may not always be meaningful, the stuff underlying the poor finishes can matter. In the Dodgers case, injuries loom large. Center fielder Matt Kemp will not appear in the playoffs. Andre Ethier may very well be on the playoff roster, but he has had one plate appearance since September 13. Hanley Ramirez has not played back-to-back games for some time and has nursed multiple injuries during his otherwise outstanding season. Puig fouled a ball off his foot last weekend and has suffered various bumps and bruises.
- Head-to-head matchups are likewise of minimal use here. Yes, the Braves took five of seven in the season series against the Dodgers, but that season series was totally wrapped up by June 9, which was before the Dodgers turned their season around. And they haven’t faced Kershaw since 2011. For all practical purposes, these teams are strangers to one another.
- The Dodgers rotation and the Braves bullpen will be much talked about, but it’s not as if the Braves rotation and Dodgers bullpen are chopped liver. Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have been quite good this year, with Medlen being particularly hot in September. Meanwhile, the late season addition of Brian Wilson as the Dodgers setup man and the fact that Kenley Jansen strikes out 13 batters per nine innings makes the Dodgers bullpen formidable indeed.
This would appear to be a very even matchup. The Dodgers fantastic starters against a Braves lineup which, while potent, can look lost against top hurlers. The Braves shutdown bullpen against a Dodgers lineup racked with injuries and, recently anyway, inconsistency. If the games are close, the Braves’ dominant bullpen could be the difference maker, but with Kershaw and Greinke taking three of the five possible starts, the Braves’ offense could find itself tied in knots, preventing them from ever getting close.
This is about as close to a coin-flip as I can see among the four Division Series matchups, but if I have to pick one team, I’ll pick The Dodgers in Five.